The insanity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

les-miserablesMy grandma doesn’t have wifi, but I thought that upon returning to New Delhi I would be reunited with my love. However, I soon discovered that the internet in my parents’ apartment is down. The four of us are reduced to using a 3g internet dongle to put cellphone internet into our computers. Truly a barbarous situation. There are so many unsync’ed Evernotes on my iPod Touch.

I am nearing the end of Les Miserables. It is truly a masterwork. I started reading it because my friend Becca was doing a re-read. She’s been blogging out it part by part by part, so if you’re interested in plot and such, that’d be a good place to go.

I like it a lot. In many ways, it reminds me of two of my favorite books: War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged (unsurprising, since Hugo was Ayn Rand’s favorite author). This is a book that contains worlds.

The primary method of world-delivery are these gargantuan digressions. The book starts with a 22,000 word novella that describes a guy—the bishop—who literally only appears for like three scenes in the main plot. That is far from the most irrelevant digression, though. There is a whole dissertation on the battle of Waterloo that could actually be cut from the book in its entirety without harming the work’s structural integrity. In fact, it’s disingenuous to even call them digressions. The book is full of charming page-long digressions that you barely notice. Those are not what I am talking about; I am talking about massive essays that stick out of the novel like shrapnel from a cannonaded corpse. In fact, I have prepared a list of some of the longer ones:

Digression Length (words)
The wealth, history, habits, character, and selected incidents from the life of Bishop Myriel(i.e. the bishop guy who lets Jean Valjean off after JV steals from him) 22,000
The Battle of Waterloo (which takes place well before the start of the action in the novel and really has no relevance to anything at all except that Thenardier appears in it for like a split-second at the end) 21,000
An exhaustive description of the organization and rules of the convent where JV and Cosette take shelter after fleeing 11,000
Why convents are TERRIBLE things 5,000
A discussion of underworld slang and whether it belongs in real literature 9,000
The habits of Paris street urchins (and why they represent all that is good and true in the soul of France!) 8,000
The nature of riots (and why they’re awesome!) 3,000
A description of the Paris sewers 15,500
The character of King Louis Phillippe (and why he deserved to be overthrown, even though he really wasn’t such a bad guy) 6,000

That’s over 100,000 words out of a 550,000 word novel. I compare it to Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace, but it’s actually nothing like that. Those works had long digressions, but their longest expositions were organic outgrowths of the plot and were also concise statements of the author’s life philosophy. Galt’s speech at the end of AS is about 33,000 words long…but it’s also the centerpiece of the book. The same is true of the long-ass (50,000 word) tract about Napoleon that comes (in conveniently skippable form—if you’re so inclined) right at the end of War and Peace.

Les Miserables is nothing like that. It reads like the work of a madmen—a person who has no concept of what people want to read or what is appropriate. I mean, it starts with 22,000 words (half of a Great Gatsby!) about some random guy. The closest thing it comes to is the weird 100 pages at the beginning of Demons where Dostoyevsky explicates on the odd love between an old professor and his patroness. But at least those two are characters in the book! They continue to appear! And at least that is largely told in scenes, with plot and stuff happening. I mean, the Myriel section is not as plotless as later essays will be, but it’s definitely not traditionally structured fiction.

It’s astonishing that Les Miserables exists and was successful and continues to be successful today. And that success is, in large part, not in spite of the digressions, but because of them. I enjoyed almost all of them (except the one about slang—god help me, I never want to hear the word ‘argot’ ever again). Some of them (particularly the one about the convent) were intensely fascinating. They add such a flair to the story. In War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged, you’re always like “Welp, here’s more objectivism” or “Welp, here’s some more stuff about the silliness of Napoleon”. But in Les Miserables, you really have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s like…”Hmm…alright…I guess we’re talking about the sewers now.”

And…I liked that.

The book is also real good. All kinds of interesting things happen in it. The characters are, like…characterey? Okay…I guess all I really wanted to talk about was the digressions. If you’re looking for a translation, I’d say that my Wilbour translation was eminently readable, although I think it’s like a century old.

2 thoughts on “The insanity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

  1. Becca

    The argot digression is actually one of my favorites! SO MUCH INTERESTING LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS buried under a giant pile of Victor Hugo pretending he has strong moral reasons for his decision to write argot when mostly he just wants to show off how much he knows.

    I also really enjoyed the sewer digression but this is largely because I find it weirdly adorable how many strong progressive feelings Victor Hugo has about shit.

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